Chris Rock tries on a new hat: Star of a Broadway production

NEW YORK — The title of the new Broadway play that marks comedian and actor Chris Rock's theatrical debut hardly suggests family entertainment.

Yet Rock's desire to spend more time with his family was a big factor in his decision to take on The Mother —————— With the Hat, which begins previews March 15.

"Stand-up is fun, but you have to travel," says Rock, 46, nibbling on fresh fruit at a restaurant near the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where Hat opens April 11. "I wanted to do something in New York," right across the bridge from the New Jersey home he shares with his wife, Malaak, and daughters, Lola, 9, and Zahra, 7.

Rock isn't fazed by the rigorous, eight-show-a-week schedule that awaits him. "I do that many shows when I'm on tour, and I have to fly every day. Now I'll be able to take my kids to school, eat with them some days, even take them to an activity. And I'll be home in time to watch Letterman."

Not that Rock expects Hat to be a walk in the park. The Broadway debut of acclaimed playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, it casts Rock as "sponsor" to a recovering addict and parolee played by Bobby Cannavale. "I'm like his drug counselor. In New Jack City, I was the crackhead; now I'm rehabilitated."

Asked to describe the play further, Rock quips: "It's a dark, dark, dark comedy about — about the human condition. Is that vague enough?" But seriously: "I read a number of plays, but when I got to this one, I was like, 'Whoa.' This is going to shock the world.

"They made me read for the part. And after that, I had to sit with Stephen. Don't let anybody tell you, 'Oh, we begged him ...' No, I had to jump through some hoops to get this thing."
Time Out New York drama critic and New York Drama Critics' Circle president Adam Feldman observes that Rock is taking a "riskier" path than comedians such as Will Ferrell and Colin Quinn, who in their recent forays into theater drew on personae and shtick previously established on TV and in comedy routines.

"The advance word is that (Rock's) role has a substantial dramatic element," Feldman says. "You have to applaud him for going into less familiar territory." At the same time, Rock's background provides an advantage: "In stand-up comedy, you get used to playing with and responding to an audience. You have that sensitivity and comfort level, which some Hollywood stars don't."
Though Rock won't get to use those assets for another week, he has been enjoying rehearsals immensely.

"It's an amazing process. You really take your time and break down the script. And you don't make a move without consulting the writer. When you're doing a movie, they hate the writer. I know, having written a movie or two. It's like, 'Thank you — goodbye.' "
Rock has been jotting down notes for future consideration.

"A lot of the play is about relationships, and, yeah, I'm writing some jokes on my script," he says. But he's not sure when or in what context he'll use them.

"I've pretty much suspended all other operations," Rock says. "I'm waiting for some scripts to come in. And I wouldn't mind dabbling in some stand-up this summer, after the play's over — seeing if I still have a fastball, as they say.

"But for now, this is it. I wake up, I work on this play. It's something new, and it's exciting."